Revolution in South Asia

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India: The Story of a Rebel’s Birth

Posted by n3wday on October 2, 2009

CPI naxalbari_india_revolution_communism_naxalism_maoismThis article was originally published in OpentheMagazine. Thanks to D for sending it our way.

“It’s thousands of years old/their anger/thousands of years old/is
their bitterness/I am only returning their scattered words/with rhyme
and rhythm/ and you fear that/ I am spreading fire.”


BY Rahul Pandita

26 September 2009

The Rebel

She was born into privilege and could easily have chosen the easy
life. But Anuradha Ghandy chose guns over roses to fight for the

On a muggy April evening in 2008, somewhere in Mumbai, a doctor was
trying desperately to get in touch with his patient. The patient
happened to be a woman in her early 50s, who had come that morning
with high fever. The doctor had advised a few blood tests, and, as he
saw the reports, he started making frantic calls to the phone number
the patient had scribbled in her nearly illegible handwriting. The
number, he soon realised, did not exist. He was restless. The reports
indicated the presence of two deadly strains of malaria in the woman’s
bloodstream—she had to be admitted to a hospital without delay. Time
was racing by and there was no trace of her.

By the time the woman contacted the doctor again, a few days had
passed. The doctor wanted her placed under intensive care immediately.
But it was too late.

The next morning, on April 12, Anuradha Ghandy was dead. She had
suffered multiple organ failure, her immune system already weakened by
systemic sclerosis, an auto-immune disease responsible for, among
other things, her bad handwriting.

The news spread quickly among friends and followers of Anu, as she was
fondly called. Before long news had reached Indora, a Dalit basti in
Nagpur where Anu had lived for seven years. This was before her name
appeared in the Home Ministry dossiers as Janaki alias Narmada alias
Varsha – the only woman in the CPI(Maoist)’s Central Committee, the
highest decision-making body of the Naxalites.

How did the daughter of a high profile lawyer of Bombay High Court, a
graduate of the city’s prestigious Elphinstone college, an M.Phil in
Sociology, a girl born into privilege, come to choose a life of
struggle and hardship in the treacherous jungles of Bastar, a rifle by
her side and a tarpaulin sheet for a bedding? The answer perhaps lies
in the times she lived in. Or the kind of person she was. Or maybe a
bit of both.
Anuradha was born to Ganesh and Kumud Shanbag, both of them activists,
who chose to marry in the office of the Communist Party of India
(CPI). As a young boy, Ganesh Shanbag had run away from his home in
Coorg to join Subhash Chandra Bose’s army, and later, as a lawyer, he
would fight the cases of communists arrested in the Telangana
struggle. While his briefcase would be full of petitions filed on
behalf of the arrested comrades, Kumud would be busy knitting and
collecting sweaters to be sent for soldiers fighting war with China.

Anuradha’s brother Sunil Shanbag, who is a progressive playwright,
recalls her being good at studies as well as extra-curricular
activities like dancing. But she was extremely aware of what was
happening around her. Says Sunil: “When I was in boarding school, she
would send me letters, writing about issues like the nationalisation
of banks. And she was only 12 then.” But beyond this awareness,
Anuradha was like any other girl when she joined college in 1972. “She
would come home and straighten her hair with the help of a warm iron
as girls would do in those days,” recalls Kumud Shanbag.

The early 70s were heady days for the youth. Much was happening all
around the world. Mao had ushered in the Cultural Revolution in China.
Vietnam was offering fierce resistance to the American forces. Back
home, the spring thunder of Naxalbari had erupted. Hundreds of
students of elite colleges were giving up their careers and joining
the Naxalite movement. Young men from affluent families, who had gone
abroad for higher studies, were getting radicalised. One of them was
an alumnus of Doon School, and a classmate of Sanjay Gandhi. Kobad
Ghandy’s father was a top Glaxo executive, and the family lived in a
sprawling sea-facing flat in Worli. He had gone to pursue a course in
chartered accountancy in England, and it was there that he got
initiated in radical politics. Leaving his course unfinished, he

Meanwhile, Anuradha had been working as a lecturer, but she was
dedicated to the Progressive Youth Movement (PROYOM), which drew its
inspiration from the Naxal movement. Later, she would become one of
the torchbearers of the civil liberties movement in Mumbai. It is
around this time that Anuradha and Kobad came in touch with each
other. It is not clear who inspired whom, but soon both had turned
“staunch activists,” as one common friends puts it.

The two soon fell in love, and Kumud vividly remembers the day Kobad
came visiting their house. “My husband was here on this chair,” she
points out, “and Kobad came and fell on his knees and said: ‘Can I
marry your daughter?’”

The two got married in November 1977.

By 1980, Naxal squads from the erstwhile CPI(ML) (People’s War) were
entering Dandakaranya—a swathe of forest spread across Andhra Pradesh,
Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, and Orissa—to set up a guerrilla base. In
1981, the founder of the People’s War, Kondapalli Seetharamaiah
expressed his desire to meet Kobad during a conference of the Radical
Students’ Union in Andhra Pradesh. The People’s War was keen to enter
the Gadchiroli region of Maharshtra. Naxal ideologue Varvara Rao says
the meeting between the two paved the way to the formation of People’s
War in Maharashtra.

The couple’s commitment was total. A year later, Anuradha moved to
Nagpur, which has the second largest slum population in Maharashtra,
and is also home to a significant number of Dalits (It was in Nagpur
in October 1956 that BR Ambedkar accepted Buddhism). She first stayed
in a barsati [small, one-room terrace apartment] in the Lakshmi Nagar
area. Kumud remembers visiting her there with her husband. “When we
saw where she stayed, we couldn’t believe our eyes,” says Kumud. The
roof leaked from many places. And it rained that night. “Our helper
was with us who crept under a table and slept there,” recalls Kumud.

By 1986, however, Anuradha had shifted to north Nagpur’s Indora
locality, the epicentre of Dalit politics. She rented two small rooms
at the house of a postal department employee, Khushaal Chinchikhede.
“There was absolutely nothing in their house except two trunksful of
books and a mud pitcher,” he says. Anuradha also worked as part-time
lecturer in Nagpur University. Later, Kobad would also come to live
there. Both would be out till midnight. Anuradha used a rundown cycle
to commute, and it was later at the insistence of other activists that
Kobad bought a TVS Champ moped.

Indora was notorious for its rowdies. “No taxi or autorickshaw driver
would dare venture inside Indora,” says Sunil Borkar, who grew up in
Indora. But Anuradha was unfazed. “She would pass though the basti at
midnight, all alone on a cycle,” remembers Borkar. He met Anuradha
through a friend. “She made me aware of so many things. It was like
the whole world opened in front of me,” he says.

Because of Anuradha, Devanand Pantavne, a black belt in karate turned
into a poet and the lead singer of a radical cultural troupe. Pantavne
remembers her as a stickler for deadlines. “She would get very angry
if we took up a job and then didn’t deliver on time,” he says. Another
young man, Surendra Gadling was motivated by Anuradha to take up law.
Today, he fights cases for various activists and alleged Naxals. “She
is my guiding light,” he says. It is not without reason. Anuradha led
by example, living the life she wanted the basti boys to lead.

In 1994, a Dalit woman, Manorama Kamble, working as a maid in an
influential lawyer’s house was found dead, with the lawyer’s family
claiming that she had accidently electrocuted herself
to death. But the activists feared that she had been raped and then
killed by the lawyer. Anuradha led an agitation, and it was due to her
efforts that the case created ripples in the state assembly and in

In Indora, one of Anuradha’s trusted lieutenants was Biwaji Badke, a
4ft-tall Dalit activist. “Every morning Badke would come to her house
and share all news with Anuradha over tea,” recall friends. Later,
when he was diagnosed with throat cancer, Anuradha brought him to her
house and nursed him for months. Another associate, Shoma Sen
remembers her being very sensitive to the lives of others. “Her house
in Indora was open to everyone. Every time someone would come and one
more cup of water would be added to the tea,” she says.

Because of her, many others from well-to-do families were inspired to
become activists. Says her old friend and associate of her activist
days, Susan Abraham: “When I became an activist it was always
heartening to see someone from Anu’s background working along with

It was in the mid 90s that Anuradha joined the Naxal leadership in the
jungles of Bastar and finally went underground. Maina, a member of the
CPI-Maoist’s Special Zone Committee in Dandakaranya, remembers her
efforts to mingle with the local Gond tribals: “Many people used to
question us about her, saying didi (Anuradha) is not from this
country, she does not know our language. Didi would smilingly approach
them saying: ‘I know what you are asking; please teach me your
language; I will learn everything from you.’”

Life in the jungle is very harsh. The guerrillas are always on the
move, from one village to another, carrying heavy kitbags. Even there,
Anuradha wouldn’t shy away from enduring hardships; she did everything
that other guerrillas would do. A Naxal leader, who was in Bastar when
she first came there, remembers her not sparing herself any of the
regular military drill: running, crawling, push-ups, the works. Says
Maina, “She would slip and fall many times while walking in the slushy
mud, but she would get up and laugh.”

In 1999, Anuradha was camping along with other guerillas in
Chhattisgarh’s Sarkengudem village when the police surrounded them. An
encounter ensued. Lahar, a senior guerilla remembers Anuradha taking
cover and aiming her gun at the ‘enemy’. Later, she would always
recollect that incident, urging the youth to learn the skills of
guerrilla warfare. But Sunil remembers her speaking about the
“awkwardness of carrying a gun.”

The hard life of the jungle was not easy on her body—she suffered
frequent bouts of malaria. During the same summer, she had been
walking for hours one day when she stopped and lost consciousness. Her
comrades made her drink glucose water. Apparently, she had suffered a
sun-stroke. After she recovered, she refused to hand over her kit-bag
to others, says Lahar.
When south Bastar was affected by severe drought in 1998-99, the
tribals were forced to eat rice, which, Maina says, “had more stones
than grain in it.” The same rice was offered to the guerrillas as
well, which they would eat with tamarind paste. “Taking one fistful
after another and then gulping water in between, she used to take a
lot of time to finish her meal,” recalls Maina. She also developed
ulcers in her stomach. “She would relieve the pain by eating one or
two biscuits and a glass of water,” she says.

To lessen her load, Anuradha also decided to do away with the heavy
blanket guerrillas carry, opting instead for a thin bedsheet. It was
during this time that she developed sclerosis.
No matter what the Centre claims, the Naxals often fill in the void
created by the government in their areas of influence. In Basaguda in
Chhattisgarh, an embankment needed to be built around a tank called
Kota Chervu; some ten villages were counting on supplies from this
tank. The government had ignored the villagers’ pleas for years. It
was under Anuradha’s guidance that people from 30 villages undertook
this work. Those who worked were given a kilogram of rice a day. The
government panicked and sanctioned Rs 20 lakh; it was refused. By
1998, more than a hundred tanks had been constructed by the Naxals in

Anuradha also took on the responsibility of crafting learning models
to educate women. She regularly took classes on the problems faced by
women guerillas, and wrote and translated Naxal propaganda material.
She would prepare charts with photos of political leaders and explain
world affairs to local illiterates. Sometimes, she would conduct
classes on health issues.
Between all this, Anuradha would make secret trips to Mumbai. “She
would come, and I would apply oil in her hair and massage her body. I
wanted to pamper her as much as I could,” says Kumud.

“The most amazing thing was she would always know much more than us
about films and other popular culture,” says Sunil. During the staging
of one of his plays in Mumbai, Anuradha slipped in quietly, watched
the play, and left quietly. “I came to know later that she was there,”
says Sunil.

At the ninth congress of the CPI(Maoist) in 2007, Anuradha was made a
member of the central committee. By this time, Kobad had become one of
the key Naxal leaders, in charge of party documentation. (He was
arrested this week in Delhi).

It was on the basis of Anuradha’s work that the Naxals prepared the
first-ever caste policy paper within the Marxist movement in India.
She also drafted papers on ‘Marxism and Feminism’, of which the top
Naxal leadership took note.

During the time spent in Dandakaranya, Anuradha helped the guerrillas
overcome the limitations of collective work by making them understand
what roles cooperatives could play in increasing agricultural

In Bastar, Anuradha raised questions on the patriarchal ideas
prevalent in the party. At the time of her death, she had been working
with the woman cadre, to devise plans that would help them take
greater leadership responsibilities. It was in Jharkhand while taking
classes with the tribals on the question of women’s oppression that
she contracted cerebral malaria, which led to her death.

In her memoirs of Anuradha, her friend Jyoti Punwani wrote: “The
‘Naxalite menace’, says Manmohan Singh, is the biggest threat to the
country. But I remember a girl who was always laughing and who gave up
a life rich in every way to change the lives of others.”

In Nagpur, I requested Chinchikhede to open the rooms once occupied by
Anuradha. All that remained of the old days was a sticker of Bhagat
Singh on the door. It was sunset and the sky had turned crimson. A
comrade who accompanied me lay on the floor, a floor he was too
familiar with. And he recited a poem by Gorakh Pandey:

“It’s thousands of years old/their anger/thousands of years old/is
their bitterness/I am only returning their scattered words/with rhyme
and rhythm/ and you fear that/ I am spreading fire.”

One Response to “India: The Story of a Rebel’s Birth”

  1. BENBARA abdallah said

    Don’t loose hearts,she is alive in our hearts.
    Longlive the revolution!

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